Sheepdog trials: How farmers’ bluster has led to 150 years of enthralling, fascinating competition

The original working trials may have stemmed from banter over whose border collie was better, but, as members of the International Sheep Dog Society tell Katy Birchall, the special relationship between man, dog and sheep continues to enthral.

For centuries, shepherds across Britain have tended their flocks with the help of a remarkable and steadfast companion, the sheepdog. To watch one at work is a privilege — an extraordinary, unspoken bond in action, the border collie moving quickly and nimbly at its handler’s command. In 1906, the International Sheep Dog Society (ISDS) was founded to preserve and improve the sheepdog and, in doing so, protect the shepherd’s calling and stock welfare. Today, supported by its patron, The Princess Royal, the society continues to work tirelessly to this purpose.

‘It all stemmed from the banter between shepherds and farmers about whose dog was better,’ smiles chairman Ian Fleming, a member of the society from the age of 14. ‘Eventually, they decided to have a contest to prove who was right. That talk still goes on in the trial fields — there’s a great camaraderie among the handlers. They’ll stand out in the rain all day, letting out sheep for their fellow competitors.’

The first recorded sheepdog trials took place in 1873 in Bala, North Wales, and, when the ISDS formed, the trials became an annual event. Now, national trials are held every summer in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, at which handlers guide their dogs through a series of challenging tasks, competing for the honour to represent their country at the Internationals, when the coveted Supreme Championship individual title is up for grabs.

Ricky Hutchinson’s Border Collie Jock. ©Duncan Ireland / Country Life Picture Library

In addition to the Nationals and Internationals, the prestigious World Sheepdog Trials take place every three years, hosting competitors from all over the globe. The ISDS Stud Book is also crucial to the society’s work — a list of all registered working sheepdogs and litters that stretches back to the 1940s. A fiercely intelligent herding dog with a skillset carefully and devotedly honed by past generations, these working border collies have never been bred for appearance.

‘People are fascinated by the interaction between man, dog and sheep; three different entities communicating, respecting each other,’ says Mr Fleming. ‘The trials have a wonderful atmosphere.’ There is always an added buzz when The Princess attends, he notes. ‘She’s very knowledgeable about the dogs and can spot one that particularly stands out. She takes great interest in visiting the country stands and exhibitions and speaking to every-one. It’s an honour to welcome her.’

Winner of the Brace National trials for the sixth consecutive year in 2019, Lancashire-based Ricky Hutchinson was crowned both Supreme Champion and runner-up at the 2017 Internationals with his dogs Jock and Sweep. ‘Much of it is down to the sheepdog’s instinct,’ he points out.

‘Sweep was very successful because we had a relationship whereby I gave him a lot of responsibility. He took as many decisions at a trial as I did, if not more. It’s about straight lines, tight turns and smoothness of the run — if there’s not enough pressure on the sheep, they won’t move, and if they were scared, they’d flee. And when sheep run, they tend to go in the wrong direction.’

Ricky Hutchinson with his Border Collies Jock and Moya on Ricky’s farm in the Forest of Bowland. ©Duncan Ireland / Country Life Picture Library

Sheepdog-handling is a close-knit community and some of Mr Hutchinson’s best friends are also his biggest rivals, many of whom attended his wedding last year before trialling together the following day. ‘We compete because we want the dogs to keep getting better, to make shepherding easier,’ he explains. ‘There are brilliant dogs all over the country and, whether they’re famous through the trials or have never competed, they’re out every day of the week helping a farmer work his sheep — that’s what it’s all about.’

Renowned Welsh handler Wyn Edwards, who bought his first sheepdog for £5 in 1958, admits much of his technique came about through trial and error: ‘When I started out, there wasn’t a lot of guidance, and nobody in my family was trialling. I just got stuck in.’

Due to receive the Wilkinson Sword Award in 2021 for his outstanding contribution to sheepdogs and trialling spanning more than 60 years, Mr Edwards believes the time you spend with the dogs makes the difference. ‘They’re all the better if they’re constantly out with you. They pick up your ways and can read you as far as you can read them. Working at a distance, watching your dog in control, carefully bringing the sheep to where you want them — for me, that’s the beauty of it.’

Julie Hill was first drawn to shepherding when working on a farm in 1982 and given a pup that nobody else wanted. ‘That dog was so keen on working everything, from the horses, to ducks, to geese. At first, I tried agility with her and she looked at me as if I’d gone mad,’ Miss Hill laughs. ‘When there was stock in front of her, she was inspired. I decided I needed to learn how to work a dog with such instincts.’

Julie Hill with Mac and Ban.

Having since represented Scotland at both the International and World sheepdog trials, the accomplished handler made history in 1996 when becoming the first (and currently only) woman to win the Supreme Championship. ‘At the start of my career, I was fairly controlling, more the boss than a partner. It was Moss — the dog with whom I won the Supreme title — who taught me a new way,’ explains the author of The Natural Way, a training guide based on understanding the language of the dog as a pack animal and communicating through body language.

‘He was far too intelligent to let me take full control — he taught me to let the dog tell you about the stock. We owe a lot to past generations of shepherds; they did the hard work for us, developing these wise, working dogs. We must nurture their instincts and keep that heritage alive.’

A top priority for the ISDS is supporting the next generation so they can do exactly that. Winner of the Young Handler award in 2018 with her superb dog Moxy, Erin McNaught is a rising star from Wales, due to take over the family farm when she turns 18 next year. ‘Having the chance to compete at the Internationals is amazing,’ she enthuses. ‘There are a lot of youngsters coming up now — everyone has their own method. It’s great to be able to watch other handlers and see different ways of doing things. I like a dog who can think for itself, that’s not too heavily commanded, but willing to listen to you.’

Credit: Lisa Soar

With that Supreme Championship title set in her sights, Miss McNaught insists there’s nothing else she’d rather be doing. ‘I’m the fourth generation on both sides of the family to have an interest in sheepdogs, so you could say it’s in the blood. Working with my dogs is my absolute passion — it’s all I think about.’

There can be no question that the partnership between shepherd and dog is essential; the worth of one to the other, invaluable.

It is an age-old friendship, beautifully observed in these few lines from Peter Pindar’s poem, The Old Shepherd’s Dog:

When, fatigued, on the grass the old Shepherd would lie
For a nap in the sun; ’midst his slumbers so sweet
His faithful Companion crawl’d constantly nigh
Placed his head on his lap, or lay down at his feet.

Find out more about The International Sheep Dog Society at www.isds.org.uk


Five more sheepdog facts

  • A border collie from Northumberland became the world’s most expensive sheepdog when she was sold to an American owner at auction earlier this year for £18,900.
  • Sadly, Covid-19 meant the ISDS trials have had to be cancelled, as they were during the First and Second World Wars, as well as for the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak.
  • In 1949, the trials were held in Hyde Park and sponsored by The Daily Express. The newspaper reported a 20,000 strong crowd that held remarkably silent ‘at an event which has neither balls, bats, bookies nor blows’.
  • The basic commands used by handlers include ‘away’ for a right-hand command, ‘come bye’ for a left-hand one, ‘steady’ to get the dog to slow down and ‘that’ll do’ for recall.
  • Famously adored by Queen Victoria, border collies have worked their way into the hearts of many non-shepherds, from Robert Burns to James Dean and Jon Bon Jovi.

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